JERUSALEM, April 5 — Israeli police arrested more than 350 people after clashes erupted inside Jerusalem’s flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque early today when officers entered to dislodge “agitators” in a move denounced by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.
Palestinian militants responded with rocket fire into Israel from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, prompting retaliatory Israeli air strikes.
The violence came with tensions high in annexed east Jerusalem as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan coincides with the Jewish Passover holiday.
Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, called on Palestinians in the West Bank “to go en masse to the Al-Aqsa mosque to defend it”.
Israeli police said they had entered the mosque to dislodge “agitators” who had barricaded themselves inside with fireworks, sticks and stones, making more than 350 arrests.
The mosque compound in east Jerusalem’s Old City has long been a flashpoint for violence between Palestinians and the Israeli security forces, particularly during Ramadan, which draws tens of thousands of worshippers to Al-Aqsa.
The mosque, which is Islam’s third holiest site, is built on top of what Jews call the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site.
The fresh violence comes nearly halfway through Ramadan and as Jews prepare to celebrate Passover from this evening.
Israeli police released video footage showing what appear to be fireworks explosions inside the mosque and figures throwing stones.
Another police video shows riot police with shields advancing through the mosque under a barrage of blasts.
The footage then shows a barricaded door and boxes of fireworks on the floor, as well as police escorting at least five people outside with their hands cuffed behind their backs.
Israeli police said they were forced to enter the mosque after “several law-breaking youths and masked agitators” barricaded themselves inside.
“These instigators fortified it, hours after the Taraweeh prayer (the last of the day) in order to disrupt public order and desecrate the mosque,” a police statement said.
“After many and prolonged attempts to get them out by talking to no avail, police forces were forced to enter the compound in order to get them out with the intentions to allow the Fajr (dawn) prayer and to prevent a violent disturbance.
“When the police entered, stones were thrown at them and fireworks were fired from inside the mosque by a large group of agitators,” the police said, adding that one officer was injured in the leg by a stone.
Police “detained the rioters”, who “caused damage to the mosque and desecrated it”.
Following news of the clashes at Al-Aqsa, at least nine rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, the army said.
It said five were intercepted by air defences, and four struck uninhabited areas.
“In response” Israeli fighter jets struck two suspected Hamas weapons manufacturing sites in the central Gaza Strip, the army said.
The air strikes were followed by new rocket fire from Gaza, and at around 6:15am (0415 GMT), Israeli jets carried out fresh strikes, AFP journalists reported.
No casualties were reported in the first salvo of strikes.
Earlier in Gaza, dozens of demonstrators took to the streets, burning tyres.
“We swear to defend and protect the Al-Aqsa mosque,” they chanted.
Palestinian civil affairs minister Hussein al-Sheikh condemned the Israeli police action inside Al-Aqsa, saying “the level of brutality requires urgent Palestinian, Arab and international action.”
Jordan, which administers the mosque, condemned its “storming”, and called on Israeli forces to leave the compound “immediately”.
Saudi Arabia expressed its “categorical rejection” of actions that contradict “international principles and norms in respect of religious sanctities,” a foreign ministry statement said.
Egypt, which has frequently played the role of mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, condemned the “blatant attacks” on worshippers.
“Egypt holds Israel, the occupying power, responsible for this dangerous escalation which could undermine the truce efforts in which Egypt is engaged with its regional and international partners,” the foreign ministry said.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been sucked into a spiral of violence since the start of the year after the most right-wing government in Israel’s history took office at the end of December.
The conflict has claimed the lives of at least 91 Palestinians, 15 Israelis and one Ukrainian since January, according to an AFP tally based on official sources from both sides.
On the Palestinian side, the figures include combatants as well as civilians. On the Israeli side, they include two members of the Arab minority. — AFP